The trouble with young men?
This is following up on my earlier posts about so-called (evangelical) complementarianism. Anyone who has followed this blog very long knows how strongly I feel about equality between men and women. I won’t repeat all that. If you have doubts, just go back and read some of my posts on gender issues.
A few commenters here thought that by rejecting complementarianism I was rejecting differences between the sexes (other than physiological). Nothing could be further from the truth. Some egalitarians and probably most feminists don’t like my views on that.
Personally, I cannot understand why absolute equality and difference cannot co-exist. Why is it that (some) feminists can proclaim that women’s consciousness and ways of being are superior to men’s (culturally-conditioned) ways, but if a man suggests men and women are different (beyond physiology) they get upset? I’ve experienced this apparent contradiction many times over the years. For example, I have been told by former female colleagues that women are naturally more nurturing and collaborative than males. I don’t disagree; overall and in general that is probably true. But if I say that overall and in general men are more…anything positive, I get accused of sexism.
Let me say right up front that I do not have an answer to the nature versus nurture argument about male/female differences (beyond physiology). It just seems to me that some differences (beyond physiology) seem very deeply rooted such that from earliest ages of action and communication boys and girls typically differentiate in certain ways—even when they have been raised NOT to live out gender stereotypes.
Let me also say right up front that I know I’m going out on a limb, out on thin ice, with what I am about to say here. But this is my blog, so….these are my musings. They are based on observation; they are impressionistic. I’ve read a few books about the subject (of male/female differences beyond physiology), that’s all. I’m no scholar in gender studies.
One related area about which I have read is testosterone. There are some excellent clinical studies in the relationship between hormones and behavior and a whole branch of science called socioendocrinology. It’s not an exact science; it’s an area of research. But people engaged in that research have come up with some interesting facts that hold true MOST of the time.
The problem is that, beyond some physiological changes, giving testosterone to women can’t guarantee any particular outcome. However, testosterone levels in young men tend to be a predicting factor in certain general behaviors such as aggression and empathy. Young men with higher levels of testosterone (near the upper limit of normal or above normal) tend to be more aggressive than their counterparts with testosterone levels near or below clinically deficient.
Also, and this is most interesting, young men with very high levels of testosterone TEND to be less empathetic than young men with low normal levels. Men with high normal or abnormaly high levels shown films of actual killing or torture, for example, respond less empathetically.
Finally, studies show that men with higher levels of testosterone are more willing to take risks than men with lower levels and, in general, men tend to be more likely to take risks than women. Some researchers chalk that up to testosterone. Except that giving women testosterone supplements doesn’t seem to raise their risk-taking behaviors. So there’s something more involved.
What does all that mean? Well, nothing absolute. But in terms of apparent tendencies, it means “testosterone poisoning” is not just a myth.
This raises all kinds of questions, but offers few answers. Should judges take tesosterone level into account in sentencing young male offenders? It’s well known that certain brain tumors can hinder ability to resist impulses. That’s sometimes taken into account in sentencing offenders. (For example, sentencing them to treatment rather than punishment.)
What set me off on this area of research (which, I admit, has been quite shallow compared with clinical researchers!) is the number of young men in America’s prison system and the almost unbelievable imbalance of percentages of prisoners that are male and female. I think one factor explaining that in part is that judges and juries tend to give women lighter sentences (often probation) for the same crimes because there is the assumption they are more likely to be rehabilitated. Women offenders’ rate of recidivism is, overall, less than men’s.
But my mind simply boggles as I see the statistics. What’s this all about? Why is it that especially among minority groups the percentage of males in the justice system (either in prison or on parole or probation) is staggeringly higher than females?
It’s easy to say, as I think many people do, that women are just better human beings than men. But who is going to say that about whites and blacks? Is anyone going to say that because the percentage of black men in the justice system exceeds the percentage of white men in it, white men are just better human beings? No. Nobody in their right mind says that. I certainly do not believe it.
So what’s the explanation? I don’t know if anyone has one. But I think it’s worth exploring. Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, nobody is exploring it. If they are, I’d like to know about it. Is there a theory that potentially explains the predominance of men in the justice system and the higher ratio of minority men in it? (The only theories I’ve read rely on explanations based on poverty and injustice in convicting and sentencing. I don’t discount those, but I’m not sure they provide the total explanation.)
I doubt that testosterone is going to be the comprehensive answer. It may be a partial explanation. In fact, I’ll go so far as to suggest it probably is a partial explanation (not with regard to minority ratios but with regard to gender ratios of prisoners generally—male to female). However, scientific studies are showing that men’s testosterone levels are dropping quite dramatically overall and nobody seems to know why. Some have suggested it has something to do with bovine estrogen in the water supply. That seems far fetched to me, but I would like to see some serious research done on the problem. (Maybe it’s not being done because most people think it’s a good thing so why tamper with it!)
So let me pose my theory about the problem with young males in today’s society.
I look around me on the streets and see numerous young men with lots of really scary tattoos and bumper stickers and attitudes. Lots of young men seem to be dropping out of the “rat race” and settling for living with their parents or getting by on as little work as possible, spending their time playing computer games and hanging out at bars. What might explain the “man problem” that many people are observing and commenting on (including women educators, sociologists, etc.)?
My theory is this. From a very early age, males crave respect. Stop. I’m not saying females don’t need respect! I’m saying males crave it. It’s very high on most especially young men’s hierarchy of needs. It seems to me that females crave love and intimacy and affirmation. They DESERVE respect, but it’s not AS MUCH a craving as it is with males.
Here’s my main point: When males (especially youngish ones) come to believe respect from the larger society is never going to be theirs, many embrace fear as a substitute for respect. In other words, “If you, society, will never respect me, fear me.” Fear becomes a surrogate for respect which causes many young men to act out in ways that may not be criminal but send the message “Fear me because I am capable of doing really bad things to you.”
I THINK (can’t prove) that many young men today are getting the message that their maleness is something society at large disapproves of. The women’s movement has been great for women, but I THINK it has had the unintended consequence of sending subtle signals to young males that there’s something bad about just being male. Or, maybe there are no such intentional signals but males are interpreting social shifts that way.
However, here is what I’ve noticed. Many public school teachers treat male students as defective females. They try to social engineer them into being more like their female counterparts. Sitting still, being quiet, enjoying reading for long periods of time, not moving, paying attention. Teaching methods have shifted toward females’ ways of learning. Many schools are abolishing “recess” altogether. If you’re a boy who is not particularly good at sports (so not involved in extracurricular sports), what outlet do you have for your natural restlessness and need for physical movement during the school day?
I pay close attention to the announcements in our city’s newspaper about educational and recreational opportunities for kids to see how many are geared toward females and how many toward males. Almost all that state a gender are for girls. I have seen very few announcements of such special events put on by parks and recreation agencies, YMCAs, non-profit groups, etc., for boys. Almost all are for girls. And there are many local and national non-profit organizations geared specifically for girls to help them with self-esteem, body image, making good choices, etc., etc. I see very few of those for boys. And yet the percentage of boys dropping out of school and choosing to commit crimes is much higher than the percentage of girls.
I open my local newspaper and look at the large color pictures on the front pages of the sections that very often feature children or young people. They are almost always girls. The local TV stations often feature (especially in the summer) brief human interest stories about kids and recreation events, camps, etc. The kids interviewed by the reporters are almost always girls. I asked one reporter about that and she told me the girls are “well spoken” compared with the boys.
I could go on and on with examples of ways in which our society seems to tilt favorably toward girls and young women.
Oh, yes, of course. I know that there are many disadvantages to being female in America’s still largely sexist society. What I am saying, however, is that in our rush to affirm and help females boys and young men are feeling left out and neglected and even disrespected.
I remember a few years ago a nationally syndicated radio psychologist (a female) suggested on the air that males, including children, need respect just for being male. She wasn’t making a value judgment; she was giving advice to parents and teachers who wonder how to handle boys. As I recall, the media pounced on her and she was dropped by radio networks.
These are unpopular opinions. I am not suggesting in any way that males are superior. But I think society may be doing itself a disservice by ignoring the male problem. I think it is just prudent to recognize and come to terms with males’ (especially young males’) need for respect.
Instead, what I fear is happening is that we are putting boys on meds instead of adjusting teaching methods and schedules (etc.) to accommodate them. We are sending them the message that they are, indeed, defective girls and need to sit still, quieten down, pay attention (for long periods of time), don’t look out the window, talk and write about feelings, etc., etc.—things that come somewhat harder for young males than for young females (overall and in general with many exceptions, of course). When they don’t, after we’ve canceled recess, we put them on meds.
When I see a young man looking scary (many tattoos, scary bumper stickers, threatening demeanor) I tend to think “There’s a young man who decided he won’t get respect, so he’ll settle for fear.”
Yes, yes, of course…there are other factors such as many boys lacking fathers, but the one I’m talking about is one I almost never hear mentioned or discussed and, I suspect, that’s because it’s very politically incorrect to mention something boys or men “need” more than girls or women.
Strangely, very strangely, something the opposite of what I’m theorizing about boys and young men is happening in the entertainment media with regard to women. Have you noticed that in entertainment media, many women characters are aggressive, mean, even violent in a way that’s highly unlikely if not impossible (e.g., one woman beating up two or three larger, very strong men all by herself)? It seems that the media are obsessed with reversing traditional gender roles. And I’m certainly not saying everything about that is bad. I’m all for showing women as strong, competent leaders. They can be and often are. But why this sudden rage to make movies showing them as assassins, ninjas, warriors, etc.? Perhaps some women are and have been those, but the movies and some TV shows go to extremes with it. Sometimes extremes that are just laughable. (A young teenage girl trained as an assassin? Three women assassins going to a central American country to kill a drug lord? Etc., etc., etc.)
This phenomenon seems to be the flip side of the first one. But I don’t see it as having long-lasting or widespread deleterious effects on society. Most people know it’s pure fantasy. But I do think one reason our jails and prisons are crowded with young males is that many young males simply give up on the idea of ever gaining respect (except perhaps from a few friends or a gang) and opt for fear or crime or both. And many others, who never turn to crime, simply give up on achievement because they conclude no matter what they do they won’t get respect anyway or their chances of achieving very much are low. (Perhaps they see less qualified women being promoted over their fathers and uncles which is undeniably a trend in some government agencies and private organizations.)
Well, this has gone longer than I intended, but part of that is the felt need to add a lot of words to avoid misunderstandings and perceptions of sexism. Let me close by saying clearly that I believe in absolute equality of men and women, boys and girls. But I’m not sure society does. There’s still a lot of bias against females in our society. But there’s also increasingly a blindness to boys and young men and their needs. And I don’t think this need for respect is something that can be changed by social engineering, at least not in the short run. I suspect it’s somehow built into boys and men by something (perhaps a combination of nature and nurture).
Finally, back to how this relates to the over abundance of young males entering America’s prison systems. Is it possible that it has something to do with them feeling no respect from society? Even feeling hopeless about ever receiving society’s respect? Could that then drive them to live on society’s margins, becoming involved with gangs (whether formally organized or just a group of similar friends)? It just seems to me there may be a connection between what Newsweek called “The Boy Crisis” in a cover story a few years ago and the increasing enrollment of young men in our prisons or just dropping out of the attempt to achieve and succeed.